Agnès Poirier, Left Bank:
Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950
(Henry Holt & Co., $30)
Agnès Poirier, a Paris-born and London-educated journalist, takes on two weighty subjects in Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950: Parisian artistic, cultural and intellectual life during what was surely Paris’s darkest 20th century period, the four years of German occupation, 1940-44; and the efforts to restore the City of Light to its former eminence in all things artistic, cultural and intellectual in the remaining years of the turbulent decade. Her book consists primarily of short anecdotes or vignettes – what she terms a “collage of images” (p.4) — about some of the leading artistic and intellectual personalities in 1940s Paris. With much emphasis upon the shifting romantic attachments among these personalities, the book has a gossipy flavor.
The grim occupation years constitute only about a third of Poirier’s narrative. The book begins to gather momentum when she turns to the second of her two weighty subjects, how artists and intellectuals sought to regain their footing in the second half of the decade. One of the primary tasks Poirier sets for herself is to capture the euphoria that accompanied the liberation of Paris in 1944 and the end of hostilities the following year.
Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long partner Jean-Paul Sartre are undoubtedly the book’s lead characters, the personalities Poirier returns to consistently in this collection of anecdotal portraits. In an appropriate rebalancing from other works on philosophy’s ultimate power couple, Beauvoir receives more attention than Sartre; she is the book’s star. Behind Sartre in supporting roles are novelists Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler (both Camus and Koestler have been subject of books reviewed on this blog, here and here). In addition to these four, Poirier provides glimpses of a dizzying number of luminaries who congregated at the Café de Flore and the other Left Bank cafés along or near the Boulevard St. Germain where Beauvoir and Sartre hung out.
At the outset, Poirier provides a list of 32 individuals who make up the book’s “Cast of Characters” — her “band of brothers and sisters” (p.2), as she terms them, the men and women who appear in the book’s vignettes as we glance at their personalities and interactions in their professional and personal lives. Among the continentals likely to be familiar to readers are Raymond Aron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paulhan, and Simone Signoret. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett makes several appearances. There is also a heavy contingent of Americans, including James Baldwin, Sylvia Beach, Saul Bellow, Art Buchwald, Alexander Calder, Miles Davis, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Theodore White, and Richard Wright. They were “budding novelists, philosophers, painters, composers, anthropologists, theorists, artists, photographers, poets, editors, publishers and playwrights” (p.1). Most were under 40 when the war ended and many either came to Paris from abroad in the post-war period or returned to Paris after taking refuge elsewhere during the war years.
Together, Poirier’s band of brothers and sisters:
founded the New Journalism, which . . . forever blurred the lines between literature and reportage. Poets and playwright slowly buried Surrealism and invented the Theater of the Absurd; budding painters transcended Socialist Realism, pushed Geometric Abstraction to its limits, and fostered Action Painting. Philosophers founded new schools of thought such as Existentialism . . . Aspiring writers found their voices in Paris’s gutters and the decrepit student rooms of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while others invented the nouveau roman. Photographers reclaimed their authorship through photojournalism agencies . . . black [American] jazz musicians, fleeing segregation at home, found consecration in the concert halls and jazz clubs of Paris, where New Orleans jazz received its long-overdue appreciation while bebop was bubbling up (p.2).
Despite this range of creativity and artistic output, Poirier argues that after 1944 “everything was political” in Paris (p.2). Among Left Bank denizens, there was a near-universal conviction that France desperately needed an independent, social democratic political movement. Such a movement would challenge not only the Communist Party that dominated the post-war French political landscape but also the hyper-nationalist Gaullist movement that was the Communists’ main rival and the American free-market capitalist model that hovered in the background.
The elusive quest for an independent political movement constitutes one of two threads that tie together the book’s vignettes and elevate the text to something more than a series of gossipy anecdotes. The second is Beauvoir herself, especially the development of her seminal work, The Second Sex, and how she became a model of female emancipation, breaking social conventions by combining intellectual ambition, financial independence and sexual freedom.
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Poirier’s vignettes begin before the German occupation and follow a rough chronological order. She provides some sense of how Parisian artists and intellectuals survived the war years. A deeper and more satisfying study of Parisian artistic and cultural life during the occupation may be found in Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012. As in Riding’s book, Poirier delves into France’s pained efforts to decide how to come to terms with these dark years, and how writers, artists, and intellectuals fared after the war in a process termed épuration, best translated as “purification.”
Epuration in Poirier’s view amounted to little more than an entire nation adopting the fiction that almost everyone had been part of the resistance during the occupation, with Charles de Gaulle willing to go along and even encourage this fiction as the most effective means to reunite a divided and demoralized nation. But she characterizes the épuration process as a “murky affair, and the discrepancy in punishments opened up a national debate on the nature of revenge and justice. Never more public than among writers and journalists, the debate tore friends apart” (p.74).
One writer, Robert Brasillach, who had collaborated with the Nazi and Vichy governments, was executed, notwithstanding petitions signed by Sartre, Camus and other writers who abhorred Brasillach’s political convictions yet pleaded to spare his life. Every other writer with collaborationist tendencies avoided this fate. Poirier wryly notes the generosity underlying the épuration process, which seemed designed to demonstrate that it was “never too late to be a patriot” (p.71). Those French men and women who had lived through the four years of the occupation “with the shame of the armistice but had not had the courage to join the Resistance or go to London seized the opportunity to clear their conscience” (p.71). As Beauvoir observed, the joie de vivre which liberation generated was “tempered by the shame of having survived” (p.76).
Poirier earnestly seeks to capture that tempered joie de vivre. As Paris’s galleries, boulevards, jazz clubs, cafés, bistros, and bookshops returned to life, the city’s intellectuals and artists were, she writes, eager to unleash their “unquenchable thirst for freedom in every aspect of their lives. Whether born into the working class or the bourgeoisie, they wanted little to do with their caste’s traditions and conventions or with propriety. Family was an institution to be banished, children a plague to avoid at all costs” (p.116). It was, Poirier writes, a time to “stare at the reality with lucidity in order to change it” (p.95), a time to “experiment with life, love, and ideas, to throw away conventions, to reinvent oneself, and to reenchante the world” (p.95).
It was also a time of sexual liberation, for women as much as men, Poirier emphasizes, with a high percentage of assertive bi-sexual women and “female Don Juans” (p.3) among the book’s cast of characters. In post-war Paris, where such traditional categories as race and religion were deemed inconsequential, gender still counted. “Only the strongest of women survived,” Poirier writes, but those who did “shook the old male order.” Using their “wizardry with words, images, and concepts,” Left Bank women “revolutionized not only philosophy and literature but also film and modern art” (p.288-89). The romantic interactions among the band of brothers and sisters, a theme to which Poirier returns consistently, were multiple and complicated, none more so than those involving Beauvoir herself.
By 1944, Beauvoir and Sartre were more like business partners, writing and generating ideas together while pursuing romantic interests independently (not unlike Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; see Jospeh Lelyveld’s His Final Battle: The Last Six Months of Franklin Roosevelt, reviewed here in March 2017). Beauvoir’s interests included both Koestler and Camus. Beauvoir was attracted to Koestler upon reading the initial proofs of his signature novel, Darkness at Noon. Poirier describes in some detail one intensive soirée the couple spent together, perhaps their only one, after which Beauvoir concluded that Koestler was a “violent and impulsive man, a world-weary seducer” (p.122).
The electricity between Beauvoir and Camus lasted longer although, we learn, Camus was frightened by Beauvoir’s intelligence. Beauvoir, by contrast, had “no reservations about [Camus]. Nothing in him could turn her off, except perhaps his moralizing” (p.120). Poirier also pays close attention to Beauvoir’s most sustained and deepest heterosexual relationship in the post-war period, with American writer Nelson Algren. During her affair with Algren, Beauvoir appears to have ceased liaisons with countless younger women, many of whom Sartre also pursued.
Both Sartre and Camus “often fell for pretty students and groupies. It was easy, Poirier writes. ” Those young lovers were enthusiastic, malleable, a little naïve perhaps, and would recover in no time once the affair with the great man had ended” (p.120). The two men, at different times, also pursued Koestler’s girlfriend and wife-to-be Mamaine Paget, while Koestler was ranging widely among the Left Bank female contingent. One of Koestler’s liaisons was with Dominique Aury, who translated some of Koestler’s articles into French.
Poirier describes Aury as a “seductress, a conqueror of both men and women [who] knew how to snare her prey” (p.125). Aury’s most intriguing relationship was with not Koestler but Édith Thomas, a relationship Aury struck up after leaving an unidentified man whom Poirier speculates might have been Camus. Both Aury and Thomas had been part of the resistance during the war. Aury was from a traditional, right-wing Catholic family; Thomas, a published novelist, was a member of the Communist Party. Despite these differences, they shared a “passion that would transport Édith to a state of delirious ecstasy” (p.127). But Aury, a “born huntress” who after passion subsided “always chased other prey” (p.125), ended the affair with Thomas for another with a married man, famed publisher and literary critic Jean Paulhan, leaving Thomas with a sense of betrayal she never got over. And so it went on the Left Bank.
Amidst the musical beds, Sartre and Camus endeavored to establish a social democratic alternative to the Communist party. By 1946, the first full year after the war, France’s leading political parties were the Communists and the Gaullists. The non-Communist Socialist Party was too splintered to be a force attractive to Parisian artists or intellectuals. Nor were they attracted to the bourgeois nationalism and cautious reformism of the Gaullists. The French Communist Party’s association with wartime resistance, moreover, gave it a huge advantage with the public.
The “terrible and deep guilt felt by so many French people who did not take part in active résistance against the Nazi occupiers meant that they could not and would not criticize the Communists, the most active members of the French Resistance” (p.158). With a “kind of spiritual power over the youth and the intelligentsia,” the Communist party was for many a “conscience, and a magnet” (p.138). The party was “intent on invading every nook and cranny of public life” (p.138). It received a jolt of positive energy when Picasso officially joined in 1944.
Few Left Bank artists or intellectuals followed Picasso’s example, although in Poirier’s view most saw Communism, on balance and in theory, as preferable to capitalism. Beauvoir and Sartre certainly felt the tug of the party’s appeal, but were not ready to “bargain their freedom, espirit critique, and independence for the sake of acceptance into the Communist fold” (p.143). Although Camus and Koestler had both flirted with Communism in their younger days, by 1946 they were among the Left Bank’s most vocal anti-Communists.
Camus had credibility as having been an active member of the resistance (Sartre, by contrast, was as an “armchair” resistant although he had been jailed during the war, p.67). Koestler, even more firmly anti-Communist, leaned toward the Gaullists and tried with limited success to convince his Left Bank associates that there was “no greater threat in Europe than Communism” (p.153). Although the Left Bank denizens may have been clashing among themselves at the Café de Flore and elsewhere over arcane philosophical and historical implications of Marxism and Communism, the Party, hardly into nuance, “put them all in the same bag” (p.160) as traitors. The influential French Communist press “used all their might to promote their ideology and to attack all those who did not think like them, including Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir” (p.77).
Poirier credits Camus with having a vision for a political alternative. Rather than promote a “tired compromise between left and right,” Camus “dreamt of a humanist socialism, of new boldness in politics, a fresh, harsh and pure new elite coming from the Resistance to rule over an old country. He dreamt of social justice and of individual freedoms” (p.136-37). But it fell to Sartre to take concrete steps toward building a new political party, the Rassemblement Démocratique et Revolutionnaire (the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance or RDR), which he co-founded in 1948 with novelist David Rousset.
The RDR’s aim was to unite the non-Communist Left and promote an independent Europe as a bridge between the Soviet and American blocs. The RDR opened to a big splash, with the public support of Camus. But the party never really got off the ground. The cantankerous Left Bank intellectuals “proved too heterogeneous a mélange to speak with one strong voice” (p.157) on the notion of a third force that would be hostile to both the Gaullists and the Communists. The inglorious end of the RDR prompted Sartre to withdraw from political activism. “No more party membership. From now on, there would be only literature” (p.265).
Beauvoir lent little support to Sartre’s RDR project. She was feverishly at work at what had started as a short essay and grew into the voluminous The Second Sex (Le deuxième sexe in French), as well as deeply involved with Nelson Algren. The Second Sex, a meticulously researched and easily accessible work, sought to demonstrate “how men oppress women” (p.285). Looking at biology, psychoanalysis, and history, Beauvoir found “numerous examples of women’s ‘inferiority’ taken for granted but never had she found a convincing justification for it” (p.285). Poirier summarizes Beauvoir’s composite portrait of women as:
conditioned by society into accepting a passive, dependent, objectified existence, deprived as they are of subjectivity and the ambition to emancipate themselves through financial independence and work. Whether daughter, wife, mother, or prostitute, women are made to conform to stereotypes imposed by men . . . [O]nly through work, and thus economic independence, can women obtain autonomy and freedom (p.286)
The Second Sex’s brilliance lay in Beauvoir’s “rigorous intellectual approach combined with a cool and superbly concisely style” (p.132). Beauvoir “at last” was “considered worldwide an equal to Sartre and Camus” (p.285).
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Poirier indicates at the outset that Left Bank is not an “academic analysis” (p.4), to which she could have added that the book is not a conventional history either. Herein lies the primary reason why, despite its weighty subject matter, the book fell short of my expectations. While Poirier’s anecdotal portraits of the leading lights in Paris during a fraught decade make for entertaining reading, they don’t add up to a portrait of the city itself during the decade.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
February 26, 2019